Tag Archives: Conversion

Methodism and the Redefinition of Religious Intolerance in England, 1688-1791

This paper was presented at the 2012 American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies Conference in San Antonio, TX – March 24, 2012.

John Wesley at Wednesbury

On October 20, 1743 John Wesley rode into the town of Wednesbury in the West Midlands.  As was his custom, he proceeded to the middle of the town and began to preach in the open air.  On this particular occasion his text was Hebrews 13:8 (Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever) and he remarks in his journal that there was a “far larger crowd than expected.”  After preaching, Wesley retired to a local Methodist’s house.  There he was engaging in his endless correspondence when a mob beset the house and forced Wesley to come with them to the local magistrate.  This is how Wesley describes the scene in his Journal:

To attempt speaking was vain; for the noise on every side was like the roaring of the sea. so they dragged me along till we came to the town; where seeing the door of a large house open, I attempted to go in; but a man, catching me by the hair, pulled me back into the middle of the mob. They made no more stop till they had carried me through the main street, from one end of the town to the other. I continued speaking all the time to those within hearing, feeling no pain or weariness. at the west end of the town, seeing a door half open, I made toward it and would have gone in; but a gentleman in the shop would not suffer me, saying they would pull the house down to the ground. However, I stood at the door, and asked, “Are you willing to hear me speak?” Many cried out, “No, no! knock his brains out; down with him; kill him at once.”Others said, “Nay, but we will hear him first.” I began asking, “What evil have I done? Which of you all have I wronged in word or deed?” And continued speaking for above a quarter of an hour, till my voice suddenly failed: then the floods began to lift up their voice again; many crying out, “Bring him away! bring him away!” (5:418).

What is remarkable about this story is that 1. Wesley was an ordained Anglican priest who always preached (even in the open air) in his cassock and bands, 2. The text and message he presents are completely orthodox – in complete agreement with the Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles, and 3. the vehemence of the mobs reaction and their willingness to use physical violence against the famous John Wesley.

Such incidents were by no means isolated in the early years of Methodism.  Methodists, though legally still part of the established Church, were routinely harassed by fellow citizens who looked upon them with suspicion and contempt. Riots regularly broke out at Methodist meetings, chapels were vandalized and destroyed, preachers were attacked and/or pressed into the army and navy and Charles Wesley was brought before the magistrates on charges of Jacobitism.  Clearly toleration had its bounds even within the establishment.

What these brief examples clearly illustrate is that “toleration” and indeed intolerance took on a very different cast in Britain during the years following the Toleration Act of 1689.  Though the state officially tolerated religious difference – opening the way for a more individual system of religious belief; nevertheless local circumstances continued to dictate how toleration was applied. As in the example of John Wesley at Wednesbury illustrates, though Methodists were ostensibly a part of the establishment yet they faced localized persecution in some cases far more severe than that suffered by Dissenters. Thus, what I want to argue is that tolerance in England during the eighteenth century was about far more than religious doctrine or right belief.  Instead, intolerance persisted precisely because official toleration gave the public license to overlook belief.  As the example of the Wednesbury mob illustrates the attacks against Methodists, up to and including John Wesley himself, had little to do with doctrine and everything to do with how Methodists used the discourse structures of orality and print to reach a wider audience.  It was the unboundedness of the revival – the circulation of people and print, along with the willingness to ignore local customs and boundaries – that was really at issue.

Bearing this in mind, I want to do two things.  First, I will lay out some basic background on the controversy over Methodism.  Specifically, I will use the complex interplay between orality and print that characterized early Methodism to illustrate how the movement disrupted public space and created what became a developed evangelical public sphere by century’s end.  Secondly, I will turn to the question of Methodism and gender as a lens through which to interpret the intolerance that Methodists faced – by examining this potent socio-cultural issue I will thus be able to illustrate that the objections to Methodism by the general public had little to do with doctrine and everything to do with the evolving definition of the religious self.

It has long been assumed that the evangelical religion that arose and spread during the Evangelical Revivals in England and America was diametrically opposed to Enlightenment.  However as Michael Warner has recently pointed out, “Far from being simply a reaction against an already congealed ‘Enlightenment,’ eighteenth-century evangelical practices came into being through many of the same media and norms of discourse” (Preacher’s Footing  368).  Thus evangelicalism in fact participated in the same norms of discourse that created what Warner has termed an “evangelical public sphere” during the eighteenth century.  This evangelical public sphere operated alongside the secular in ways that “required the space of controversy afforded by competing printers, the compressed and progressive temporality of news, awareness of translocal fields of circulation, and a semiotic ideology of uptake” (Freethought and Evangelicalism 11:00). Thus the Evangelical Revival was in large part made possible by the expanding technologies of print and the increased venues for circulation that the developing capital economy produced.  It is to these technologies and products of mediation that we must attend if we are truly to understand the discourse of popular evangelicalism and how this discourse interacted with society at large.

In the case of the discourse culture of Methodism that was fostered by John Wesley there was an inherent relationship between circulating orality, manuscript culture, and print that came to define the Methodist media environment. As Warner puts it, “In a movement context that mixes printed and preached sermons with pamphlets and newspapers, performance and print were densely laminated together” (Printing and Preaching 42:00).  In his published Journal, for example, John Wesley not only records his extensive travels, but also details the sermons he preached – many in the open air to thousands of listeners.  However, in contrast to his printed sermons which are composed and arranged specifically for publication, in the Journal Wesley usually only recounts the Scripture passage he preached on and the number of people he preached to.  These mostly ex tempore public sermons were shaped by his context and his public audience, and the account of them in the printed journal thus highlights the unbounded nature of his audience and his text and the close relationship between orality and print that defined early Methodism.

However it was this unbounded nature of open air Methodist itinerant preaching that was perceived as the greatest threat to the established social norms.  Anglican parish preaching was directed in mostly set language (The Book of Common Prayer and the Homilies) to a very specific and set group of people within a sanctioned public space by an ordained priest – itinerant Methodist preachers, on the other hand, openly operated outside of this established structure.  Mostly un-ordained and uneducated, and thus outside of the established structure, they circulated from town to town preaching ex tempore in the open air or unsanctioned chapels.  Many of their sermons were never printed, nevertheless the storm of controversy they stirred up (both for and against) clearly made its way into print and informed the national conversation on the Revival.  Thus it was this “unauthorized” entrance into the public space of preaching – the claim to be able to address an unbounded audience – that caused much of the animosity towards Methodism.  In other words it was the discourse not the doctrine of the revival that was at issue.

An example of this can be found in the Account of the Experience of Hester Ann Rogers.  Towards the beginning of her narrative Rogers relates her reaction to the new Methodist preacher in Macclesfield, Mr. Simpson:

I heard various accounts of a clergyman whom my uncle Roe had recommended to be curate at Macclesfield, and who was said to be a Methodist. This conveyed to my mind as unpleasing an idea of him, as if he had been called a Romish priest; being fully persuaded that to be a Methodist was to be all that is vile, under a mask of piety…. I believed their teachers were the false prophets spoken of in the Scripture: that they deceived the illiterate, and were little better than common pickpockets; that they filled some of their hearers with presumption, and drove others to despair (15-16).

Thus Rogers’ objection to the Methodist Mr. Simpson has very little to do with anything he actually believes or preaches (she has never even heard him) and very much to do with the way in which he disturbs the order of society.  As she writes later, “When I came back to Macclesfield, the whole town was in alarm. My uncle Roe, and my cousins, seemed very fond of Mr. Simpson, and told me he was a most excellent man; but that all the rest of my relations were exasperated against him (16-18).  Simply by participating in the discourse of Methodism, then, Mr. Simpson calls up the specter of unbounded enthusiasm and disruption of the social order.

More than that, though, Rogers’ account illustrates how closely intertwined orality and print were in early Methodism.  Sprinkled throughout her published Account are references to sermons by Mr. Simpson, John Wesley and others.  Ostensibly instances of the localized orality of popular religion, evidence of these sermons nevertheless make it into print accounts – the most famous and published of which was Rogers’.  Likewise the women who wrote in to John Wesley’s Arminian Magazine participated in this conversation between orality and print – often giving accounts of revivals and sermons for the larger Methodist public.  Thus early evangelical media culture worked to form a type of feedback loop within which the genres of public oral sermon and printed discourse were constantly in conversation.  And it was this feedback loop of orality and print that threatened to break down the established public boundaries between private spirituality and public life.

To better illustrate how this evangelical public sphere operated and was contested I want to turn to some specific and local examples of the types of intolerance early Methodist converts faced. For, though the generally unbounded (in every sense of the word) nature of the Methodist movement and spirituality was crucial in forming attitudes towards Methodism, these attitudes were shaped and enacted according to local circumstances, customs, and mores. This is especially apparent in the case of Methodist women. Not only do these evangelical women writers illustrate how print could be used to blur gendered distinctions between public and private, they were also the locus for much of the anti-Methodist criticism and satire.  In fact the role of gender within evangelical religion and the appeal of evangelicalism to women was one of the roots of the controversy the Revival engendered. Thus the reaction to Methodism was in reality an expression of deeper seeded concerns over the role of marginalized members of society – women, the poor – in organized religion.  This anxiety is apparent in Leigh Hunt’s Attempt to Shew the Folly and Danger of Methodism in which he states, “We may see directly what influence the body has upon this kind of devotion [Methodism], if we examine the temperament of its professors.  The female sex, for instance, are acknowledged to possess the greater bodily sensibility, and it is the women who chiefly indulge in these love-sick visions of heaven” (55).  Thus what is really at stake in the print wars over Methodism is not so much the doctrine of justification by faith but the eroding of social boundaries via spiritual experience.

Hester Ann Rogers, for example, faced intense persecution from her mother and family upon her conversion to Methodism. Swayed by rumors about Methodism and Methodist teaching her mother “threatened, if ever she knew me to hear them… [to] disown me. Every friend and relation I had in the world, I had reason to believe, would do the same” (22). Rogers continues to attend Methodist meetings, however and “when my mother heard of it, a floodgate of persecution opened upon me!” (22). Her mother responds by confining her to the house for eight weeks, bringing in her godmother and the local clergyman to council her, and taking her away from Macclesfield, but to no avail. Upon returning home Rogers told her mother “in humility, and yet plainness,” that she “must seek salvation to my soul, whatever is the consequence” (23). She then says that she will leave and become a servant rather than renounce Methodism and goes on to offer her mother a deal:

Yet if you will consent to it, I should greatly prefer continuing in your house, though it should be as your servant: and I am willing to undertake all the work of the house, if you will only suffer me to attend preaching. She listened to my proposals; and after consulting with her friends, consented to comply on this last condition (23).

Rogers then proceeds to work for her mother as a servant for over a year before finally convincing her of the authenticity of Methodist experience. What was at stake here clearly had nothing to do with the actual content of Methodist belief – Hester goes to great lengths to articulate its orthodoxy to both her mother and godmother – but the erosion of family and community bonds and loyalties through spiritual experience.

Likewise the intense persecution that Mrs. A.B. experienced following her decision to become a Methodist illustrates the localized nature of Methodist experience and the ways in which persecution was very much tied to the disruption of social and culture norms. Mrs. A.B. was born to a Catholic family on an island of Lough Key in Ireland. Through the influence of an old Protestant woman who boarded with the family during Mrs. A.B.’s childhood, she was convinced of the error of the Catholic Church and the necessity of salvation by faith.  When she was fifteen, Mrs. A.B. was sent to the local priest for religious instruction – she refused to take part in Catholic rituals and openly defied both the priest and the Bishop, to whom she was sent to cast the “witchcraft” out of her. When she was twenty-one she came in contact with the Methodists and was sensibly converted.  She then publically recanted the Catholic Church, causing the parish priest to say he “would make hawk’s meat” of her.  After this she applied to the Rector of the Church of England parish for admittance and protection, but was rejected due to her belief in the ability to sensibly know her sins were forgiven. She then applied to another clergyman, who agreed to receive her into the Church. After this her friends and family attempted to marry her to a Catholic by force – rather than comply she fled, covering over seventeen miles by foot in a single day and contracting a life threatening fever.  Eventually she was taken into the house of a local Methodist and eventually married a Methodist man. What is crucial to recognize here is that Mrs. A.B. was an obscure, young woman who dared subvert local cultural norms because of her evangelical conversion.  She was willing to stand up to religious authorities up to and including a Bishop and flee her family and friends rather than marry someone against her will.

In becoming Methodists these women were in essence declaring their allegiance to a new spiritual family that was set in direct opposition to mainstream British culture.  Henceforth their primary allegiance was to God and the Methodist community and, as Hester Ann Rogers’ and Mrs. A.B.’s testimonies illustrate, they were willing to give up everything to do so. This disruption of social and cultural norms was then reflected in the concern on the part of fathers, mothers, husbands, and communities.  By developing a grassroots system of classes, bands, and select bands in order to foster a unique Methodist social community, Wesley created and organization that operated with what Gail Malmgreen describes as a “centrifugal force” which brought individuals together across wide distances and “broke down the narrowness of provincial life” (62).  For this very reason, though, these bands were seen as profoundly threatening to existing social and religious structures; thus it should come as no surprise that the early years of Methodism were accompanied by intense persecution in the form of riots, press gangs, and family pressure to renounce Methodism.

What these concerns indicate is that controversy over religious doctrine in eighteenth century England was rooted in the discourses of religion, gender, and publicity.  The average layperson may not have understood why Wesley’s doctrine of justification by faith and insistence on immediate sensible conversion caused such uproar within the Church establishment, but he or she surely understood that such doctrines threatened social order in radical ways.  Implicit in Wesley’s assertion that God’s grace was a free gift and salvation was available to all was an understanding of doctrine that exploded static categories of rich/poor, male/female, public/private.  Furthermore, by emphasizing that the experience of salvation could be sensibly experienced outside of Church walls, Methodism offered a fundamental redefinition of self based on personal experience with God and interaction with a new community of faith. Thus, under the guise of toleration religious belief became individualized, localized, and incorporated into a developing consumerist media culture. Individuals were now free to choose belief from a variety of options, but it was precisely in this move towards general toleration that localized intolerance became tolerable.

Works Cited

The Experience of Mrs. A.B.” Arminian Magazine XII (1789): 414-417, 463-466.

Malmgreen, Gail. “Domestic Discords: Women and the Family in East Cheshire Methodism, 1750-1830.” Disciplines of Faith: Studies in Religion, Politics and Patriarchy. Ed. Jim Obelkevich, et al. London: Routledge, 1987. 55-70.

Rogers, Hester Ann. An Account of the Experience of Hester Ann Rogers. New York: Carlton & Porter, 1857.

Warner, Michael. “The Evangelical Public Sphere: Between Freethought and Evangelicalism: Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin.” A.S.W. Rosenbach Lectures in Bibliography. University of Pennsylvania. 25 March 2009.

—. “The Evangelical Public Sphere: Printing and Preaching: What is a Sermon?.” A.S.W. Rosenbach Lectures in Bibliography. University of Pennsylvania. 25 March 2009.

—. “The Preacher’s Footing.” This is Enlightenment. Ed. Clifford Siskin, and William Warner. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2010. 368-382.

Conceptualizing an 18th Century Religious Public Sphere

Since the publication of Jurgen Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Spherethe concept of the public sphere as a freestanding institution of bourgeois society has been progressively modified, including by Habermas himself.  What has emerged since that time is the conception of multiple public spheres that often overlapped and sometimes conflicted.  Of particular interest to me is the way that a religious public sphere emerged and matured over the course of the long eighteenth century.  This was something that first erupted during the tumultuous years of the English Civil War when the disestablishment of the Church of England led to a proliferation of religious sects that splintered the population.  Even after the Restoration and the reestablishment of the Church, though, the genie was out of the bottle.  After attempts to proscribe dissent in the Clarendon Code and the Test and Corporation Acts largely failed, Parliament passed the Toleration Act in 1689 which, while continuing to bar dissenters from the universities and government, lifted the most burdensome restrictions.

It was within this religious climate that the Evangelical Revival arose in England for, though Methodism itself began as a movement within the Church of England, it quickly located itself within the developing religious public sphere. The fact that there was so much anti-Methodist literature from writers ranging from Smollett to Fielding to people like the anonymous pamphleteer who wrote The Story of the Methodist-lady; or, The Injur’d Husband’s Revenge: A True History indicates the extent to which religious debates were very much a part of the public consciousness. As Fielding’s character Parson Adams says in Joseph Andrews men like Wesley and Whitefield, “set up the detestable Doctrine of Faith against good Works… for surely, that Doctrine was coined in Hell, and one would think none but the Devil himself could have the Confidence to preach it” (70). As strange as it may seem to a post-modern audience, such questions of religious doctrine were very much part of the public conversation in the eighteenth century.

On the other end of the spectrum spiritual experience diaries and narratives proliferated as people like John Wesley and George Whitefield cannily utilized print as a means of spreading their message.  Both men’s journals were best sellers and indeed religious literature as a whole dominated the literary marketplace. Of course, this spiritual experience genre no doubt existed well before the eighteenth century.  Catholic mystics like St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila on the continent and Julian of Norwich in England recorded powerful, intimate, and deeply symbolic mystical experiences that continue to influence generations of readers.  However their writings, beautiful though they may be, are largely bound up in the representational symbolism of the established church.  They are internal spiritual experiences first and though are presented largely as models for spiritual devotion.  In this sense these religious experience accounts largely mirror Habermas’ category of the “representational” public sphere.  The authority of the church largely mediated how spirituality was transmitted and experienced by the public at large and as a result relatively few members of the general population ever got to read about these great saints.

The evangelical conversion narrative, however, is a different story and, as I have argued elsewhere, it largely follows the general eighteenth century trend towards the development of a complex internal subjectivity that interacts in innovative ways with the developing public sphere.  Starting roughly with Bunyan’s Grace Abounding, the evangelical conversion narrative in fact acted like a spiritual solvent – eroding the artificial divide between private and public. Unlike earlier spiritual experience account the evangelical conversion narrative is clearly oriented towards a broader audience embodied in a specific religious community.  Individuals like John Bunyan, John Wesley, and Hester Ann Rogers were not and never claimed to be part of the spiritual elite, instead they represent their experience as a constant struggle.  For the tinker John Bunyan there is nothing of the heavily symbolic spiritual rapture of St. John of the Cross, only honest struggles with sin, doubt, and oppressive local authorities.  Just as Addison and Steele attempted the reform and democratize manners in the emerging bourgeois public sphere so Bunyan brought legitimate spiritual experience and struggle to a much wider swathe of the British population – a population that was still largely dependent on the representational forms of worship and not the subjective experience of religious faith.

Furthermore, these authors utilized the burgeoning print culture to transmit their experience to a much wider, and much more socially variegated, audience.  Drawing upon the “private” diary and letter form, spiritual experience authors oriented their texts towards a specific audience – probing the developing space that was opening up in print.  As Habermas writes, “From the beginning, the psychological interest increased in the dual relation to both one’s self and the other: self observation entered a union partly curious, partly sympathetic with the emotional stirrings of the other I” (49).  By thus appropriating these forms in print, early eighteenth century conversion narrative writers (like novelists) began to develop a complex internal subjectivity that was both rooted in internal experience but oriented towards a public space.  People like John Wesley published their spiritual experiences not only or primarily for their own sakes, but in order to elicit mimetic spiritual experiences in rapidly expanding reading public.

As the century progresses, however, this divide is almost entirely erased (especially for women) as individuals begin to see religious experience, and especially writing about religious experience, as a means to entering into a developing public conversation about the role of religion in British life.  John Wesley, for example, published his Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion as an explicit response to the early criticisms of Methodism.  Even more interesting, however, is how the women of the early evangelical revival used the space they found within religious experience to express themselves publicly.  I have written about this at length elsewhere, but in general the women of early Methodism used their private, internal experience as a way to disrupt the categories of public and private themselves.  Religious experience in this sense gave them the language to enter a public space and explode any distinction between inner emotion and outer action.  Thus it was not so much that evangelical religion appealed to women because it was inherently more suited to private and domestic consumption, but because it allowed for participation in a conversation beyond those bounds.

In this sense a new sort of religious “public sphere” emerges during the eighteenth century within which gender and the role of gender within religion become part and parcel of more abstract discussions about doctrine and theology.  Thus I would argue that the debates over doctrines like justification by faith or religious “enthusiasm” were in reality expressions of deeper seeded concerns over the role of marginalized members of society – women, the poor – in organized religion.  Over the course of the nineteenth century the roles of these women were gradually circumscribed as religious movements like Methodism became centralized institutions.  Once again women were used as representational religious symbols – the “angel in the house” of domestic piety.  This is not to say that women did not find ways to counteract this narrative even well into the nineteenth century, it is just that such excursions into the religious public sphere were looked upon with far more suspicion.

References

Habermas, Jurgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.

Spiritual Senses in the Evangelical Conversion Narrative: From Bunyan to Wesley

As I dig deeper into the history and structures of the Evangelical conversion narrative, I have been continually struck by how, as one of my professors constantly reminds me: “genre is a powerful thing. Especially in the case of the conversion narrative, these stories come to inform how men and women relate to their faith, form their identity, and relate that identity to a broader religious community.  As Somers and Gibson have argued, such narrative structures are powerful in showing that “stories guide action; that people construct identities (however multiple and changing) by locating themselves or being located within a repertoire of emplotted stories; that ‘experience’ is constituted through narratives” (qtd. in Brown 70). Furthermore, these narratives reach out and arrest the reader (then and now) by using a profoundly embodied sense of spiritual perception to represent their experience with faith and the divine.  In these they simultaneously anticipate, appropriate, and interrogate the empirical philosophy of the Enlightenment (especially John Locke) that bases human understanding on sense perception.

In thus examining religious experience as primarily affective and embodied, we confirm William James’ assertion in The Varieties of Religious Experience that to understand religion in its own terms we need to turn to emotion and experience:

If religion is to mean anything definite for us, it seems to me that we ought to take it as meaning this added dimension of emotion, this enthusiastic temper of espousal, in regions where morality strictly so called can at best but bow its head and acquiesce. It ought to mean nothing short of this new reach of freedom for us, with the struggle over, the keynote of the universe sounding in our ears, and everlasting possession spread before our eyes (46-47).

And indeed most, if not all, of James’ assessment of religious experience is dedicated to judging emotional perception and the role this plays in the development of a religious subjectivity.  What James hypothesized at the beginning of the twentieth century and what has been confirmed by modern neuroscience is that emotion plays a far greater role in perception, understanding, reason, and even subjectivity than has hitherto been recognized.1

John Bunyan’s conversion narrative is a prime example of how these different philosophical and theological ideas play themselves out in narrative.  Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners is widely considered to be the forerunner to the evangelical conversion narrative of the eighteenth century.  Though writers before Bunyan (most notably the Catholic mystics) had written about their conversion experiences, Bunyan elevates the genre to an entirely new level, integrating a complex internal subjectivity and narrative pattern that anticipate the novel form.  I have written about the conventions of conversion narratives elsewhere and there is an excellent and growing literature on the subject (see especially D. Bruce Hindmarsh, The Evangelical Conversion Narrative), but what really sets Bunyan’s narrative apart is the way it relies on sense perception to represent spiritual experience.

The key point here is that in Grace Abounding Bunyan not only comes to know God or assent to the tenets of faith, but see, hear, and feel God’s presence.  He says that before conversion he was not, “sensible of the danger and evil of sin” (emphasis mine), indicating that religious experience is predicated on sense and that a new type of spiritual sense is granted upon conversion.  However as Bunyan continues to struggle with God he begins to see his sins set before him:

Yet I saw my sin most barbarous, and a filthy crime, and could not but conclude, and that with great shame and astonishment, that I had horribly abused the holy Son of God. Wherefore I felt my soul greatly to love and pity him, and my bowels to yearn towards him; for I saw he was still my Friend, and did reward me good for evil; yea, the love and affection that then did burn within to my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ did work, at this time, such a strong and hot desire of revengement upon myself for the abuse I had done unto him, that, to speak as I then thought, had I had a thousand gallons of blood within my veins, I could freely then have spilt it all at the command and feet of this my Lord and Saviour.

Here we see the evangelical convention of representing an ultimately indescribable spiritual experience as a visual event.  Bunyan does not of course mean that he literally saw his sins set before him or that Jesus was his friends, but it is the best language he can come up with to describe the experience.

Even more important for Bunyan is the sense of hearing – in fact Bunyan emphasizes, “faith comes by hearing,” which is one of the reasons he insists on preaching publicly.  Likewise Bunyan’s greatest temptation and most transcendent spiritual experience revolve around hearing.  Much of his narrative revolves around the words that he constantly hears in his head encouraging him to “sell Christ,” which he is eventually convinced that he does.  He then vacillates between despair and hope as he wrestles with whether he has committed the “unforgivable sin” of blaspheming the Holy Spirit.  Ultimately it is through hearing words of comfort from God that he is convinced that he has been saved.  The passage bears quoting at length:

Once as I was walking to and fro in a good man’s shop, bemoaning of myself in my sad and doleful state, afflicting myself with self-abhorrence for this wicked and ungodly thought; lamenting, also, this hard hap of mine, for that I should commit so great a sin, greatly fearing I should not be pardoned… suddenly there was, as if there had rushed in at the Window, the Noise of wind upon me, but very pleasant, and as if I had heard a voice speaking, Didst ever refuse to be justified by the Blood of Christ? And, withal my whole life of profession past was, in a moment, opened to me, wherein I was made to see that designedly I had not; so my heart answered groaningly, No. Then fell, with power, Heb. 12.25. that Word of God upon me, See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. This made a strange seizure upon my spirit; it brought light with it, and commanded a silence in my heart of all those tumultuous thoughts that before did use, like masterless Hell-hounds, to roar and bellow, and make a hideous noise within me. It showed me, also, that Jesus Christ had yet a word of Grace and Mercy for me, that he had not, as I had feared, quite forsaken and cast off my Soul…. But as to my determining about this strange dispensation, what it was I know not; or from whence it came I know not. I have not yet, in twenty years’ time, been able to make a judgment of it; I thought then what here I should be loth to speak. But verily, that sudden rushing wind was as if an Angel had come upon me; but both it and the Salutation I will leave until the Day of Judgment; only this I say, it commanded a great calm in my Soul; it persuaded me there might be hope; it showed me, as I thought, what the sin unpardonable was, and that my Soul had yet the blessed privilege to flee to Jesus Christ for Mercy.

This language of “speaking” to the heart, “hearing” the Lord’s voice or a passage of Scripture, and entering into a sort of dialogue with God became standard in later narratives as converts sought to explain the emotional apotheosis of coming to faith.  Like Bunyan they too experienced something they cannot easily describe, so they turn to the language of sense experience to explain it.  There are many more examples like this in Grace Abounding, but the key point here is that Bunyan comes to understand faith primarily through the evidence of “spiritual” sense.

In this Bunyan anticipates the empirical philosophy of John Locke, who emphasized that the mind was a blank slate, devoid of innate ideas and that all ideas come from sensation and reflection:

These simple ideas, the materials of our knowledge, are suggested and furnished to the mind only by those ways above mentioned, viz. sensation and reflection.  When the understanding is once stored with these simple ideas, it has the power to repeat, compare, and unite them, even to an almost infinite variety, and so can make at pleasure new complex ideas.  But it is not in the Power of the most exalted wit, or enlarged Understanding to invent or frame one new simple Idea in the mind, not taken in by the ways before mentioned: nor can any force of the understanding destroy those that are there. (Chapter II, Section 2)

“it is not possible for any man to imagine any other qualities in bodies, howsoever constituted, whereby they can be taken notice of, besides sounds, tastes, smells, visible and tangible qualities” (Chapter II, Section 3).

Thus, according to Locke, all that we know can ultimately be traced back to sense experience.  That said, though Locke was himself a Christian, he did not believe that the metaphysical world could be perceived by sense – only deduced from the rational ordering of the universe.  Nevertheless, eighteenth religious leaders from Jonathan Edwards to John Wesley most certainly read Locke and used his general principle of sensible experience to develop a theory of religious sensibility and experience.

For Methodist founder John Wesley, the foundation of religious experience lay not with outward moral action but with the experiential quality of justification by faith.  Just as his heart was famously “strangely warmed” at Aldersgate in 1738 he believed that people could know and feel that their sins were forgiven.  Contrary to later accusations, this experiential knowledge could not be obtained through good or moral works; instead these works were the result of a true and abiding faith in Christ.  Likewise Jonathan Edwards, on the other side of the Atlantic, was faced with the problem of how to determine whether an individual’s emotional expressions of faith were genuine.  Like Wesley he believed that a felt knowledge of justification to God was necessary and presided over some of the most notable outbreaks of religious fervor during the First Great Awakening.  In confronting this question both men drew on their religious heritage, but also modern empirical philosophy to develop theories of religious experience that relied on the evidence of perception and the Biblical “fruits of the Spirit.”

Edwards, for instance, in his Religious Affections lays out twelve signs that a religious affection is gracious, or of God.  What is most interesting for our purposes is that, clearly influenced by Locke, Edwards ties the affections to a sort of spiritual perception that is linked with heart emotion:

God has endued the soul with two faculties: one is that by which it is capable of perception and speculation, or by which it discerns, and views, and judges of things; which is called the understanding. The other faculty is that by which the soul does not merely perceive and view things, but is some way inclined with respect to the things it views or considers; either is inclined to them, or is disinclined and averse from them; or is the faculty by which the soul does not behold things, as an indifferent unaffected spectator, but either as liking or disliking, pleased or displeased, approving or rejecting. This faculty is called by various names; it is sometimes called the inclination: and, as it has respect to the actions that are determined and governed by it, is called the will: and the mind, with regard to the exercises of this faculty, is often called the heart (96).

Here Edwards delineates between type of perception located in the mind and understanding and a sort of spiritual perception that is located in the heart and can be inclined or disinclined to the things of religion.  He then goes on to detail how these spiritual perceptions act on the body, writing that, “All affections whatsoever, have in some respect or degree, an effect on the body…. So subject is the body to the mind, and so much do its fluids… attend the motions and exercises of the mind, that there cannot be so much as an intense thought, without an effect upon them” (131-132).  For Edwards these emotions and their bodily effects were still subject to the mind and true religious affections were still dependent upon the understanding, but what he is seeking to do here is develop a theory of the affections that makes at least a limited space for proper religious emotion.2

John Wesley Preaching to a Crowd

Likewise John Wesley faced accusations of enthusiasm throughout his life and ministry and often had more difficulty distinguishing between true religion and enthusiastic excess.  Early Methodism could be a raucous affair with thousands (sometimes tens of thousands) of people turning out in the open air to hear famous preachers like the Wesley brothers and George Whitefield.  Extravagant expressions of religious emotion were often the norm at such events with people breaking down into tears, crying out and even suffering catatonic convulsions.  In his published Journal, Wesley expresses reservations about such experiences but in general judged many to be genuine.3  Likewise Wesley’s eagerness to accept the genuineness of emotional experience led to controversy in 1763 when two of his preachers, Thomas Maxfield and George Bell, proclaimed themselves spiritually perfect and led a portion of one of Wesley’s London congregations into antinomianism.  Wesley was slow to react, wanting to test whether Maxfield and Bell’s experience was genuine, but in the end his failure to act quickly caused a major rift within London Methodism4 (Heitzenrater 2729).

However this may be, in general Wesley thought that the true test of every religious emotion was how the convert manifested the fruits of the Spirit in everyday life.  Though a person could not be saved through works; love, joy, and peace with one’s neighbor were the true signs of conversion.  It was because of this belief that Wesley solicited personal experience accounts from his vast network of correspondents, many of whom were women.  These accounts not only represented evidence that his ministry was effective, but that the religious emotions of conversion could be genuine and carry over into everyday life, powerfully molding a sense of religious agency.

But I want to argue even further – suggesting that from Bunyan to Edwards to Wesley each was developing theory of religious experience based on spiritual senses. As Edwards wrote in defining the spiritual senses, “the work of the Spirit of God in regeneration is often in Scripture compared to the giving a new sense, giving eyes to see, and ears to hear, unstopping the ears of the deaf, and opening the eyes of them that were born blind, and turning from darkness unto light” (206).  Likewise Wesley, in his Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, argues that faith cannot be based on natural sense, but spiritual:

And seeing our ideas are not innate, but must all originally come from our senses, it is certainly necessary that you have senses capable of discerning objects of this kind: not those only which are called natural senses, which in this respect profit nothing, as being altogether incapable of discerning objects of a spiritual kind; but spiritual senses, exercised to discern spiritual good and evil (V:12).

Here Wesley simultaneously draws on Locke and moves further than him, arguing for spiritual perception of spiritual things to mirror natural perception of natural things.

It is this spiritual sense that is granted upon conversion and allows the believer to experience God in a way that is incomprehensible and indescribable to the non-believer.  This, for Wesley, is the true definition of faith:

Faith is that divine evidence whereby the spiritual man discerneth God, and the things of God. It is with regard to the spiritual world, what sense is with regard to the natural. It is the spiritual sensation of every soul that is born of God… [it] is the eye of the new-born soul… It is the ear of the soul, whereby a sinner ” hears the voice of the Son of God, and lives…It is… the palate of the soul; for hereby a believer ” tastes the good word, and the powers of the world to come ;” and “hereby he both tastes and sees that God is gracious,”yea,” and merciful to him a sinner.”  It is the feeling of the soul, whereby a believer perceives, through the “power of the Highest overshadowing him,” both the existence and the presence of Him in whom ” he lives, moves, and has his being;” and indeed the whole invisible world, the entire system of things eternal. And hereby, in particular, he feels ” the love of God shed abroad in his heart (V:6).

Thus faith is intimately connected to sense and even in the case of spiritual sense Wesley describes it primarily in terms of natural sense and emotion as a means to validating experience.  For this reason Methodist conversion narratives and religious experience accounts are full of the language of sensory perception and emotion – though the experience of faith is ultimately ineffable these men, and especially women, use the language of sensibility to describe faith.

Take, as just one representative example, the language of Hester Ann Rogers as she struggles to describe her experience with God:

While thus lost in communion with my Saviour, he spake those words to my heart, – “All that I have is thine! I am Jesus, in whom dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily – I am thine! My Spirit is thine!  My Father is thine!  They love thee, as I love thee – the whole Deity is thine!  All God is, and all he has, is thine!  He even now overshadows thee!  He now covers thee with a cloud of his presence” (102).

Here sensual perception (in this case hearing) is combined with a deeply spiritual revelation of union and communion with God that ends with Rogers describing the intensity of the experience in terms of life and death, writing “I believe, indeed, if this had continued as I felt it before, but for one hour, mortality must have been dissolved, and the soul dislodged from its tenement of clay” (102).

This type of language, though often less beautifully expressed, became the stock in trade of the evangelical conversion narrative – shaping the identities and subjectivities of an entire generation of believers.  It is at the same time heavily indebted to the Enlightenment and profoundly opposed to it – in other words it is both enlightened and enthusiastic – a complex fusion of the two that effectively works to break down a binary opposition.  It is in tracing these trends from Bunyan to Locke to Wesley and his movement that we can begin to see that expressions of religious “enthusiasm” persisted throughout the eighteenth century but they did not persist in a vacuum – they subtly shaped and were shaped by a culture that was still working out what it meant to be a being in the world.

Notes

1. See Antonio R. Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999: “Moreover, the presumed opposition between emotion and reason is no longer accepted without question.  For example, work from my laboratory has shown that emotion is integral to the processes of reasoning and decision making, for worse and for better” (40-41).

2. The role of the “religious affections” was a particularly controversial topic in New England at the time.  Following the revival at Edward’s Northampton Church in 1734-1735, the religious establishment (especially in Boston) began to increasingly question what they saw as the excesses of religious emotion (or “enthusiasm” that characterized the revival experience.  Edward’s wrote his famous Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in large part to combat the misconceptions of the revival and defend the role of proper religious affections in conversion.  His Treatise on the Religious Affections expand this commentary and more clearly delineates how to distinguish genuine from false affections.  For more on this see George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life and the Yale University Press edition of Religious Affections edited by John E. Smith.

3. See The Journal of John Wesley where he writes, “The danger was to regard extraordinary circumstances too much, such as outcries, convulsions, visions, trances; as if these were essential to the inward work, so that it could not go on without them. Perhaps the danger is, to regard them too little; to condemn them altogether; to imagine they had nothing of God in them, and were a hindrance to his work. Whereas the truth is 1) God suddenly and strongly convinced many that they were lost sinners; the natural consequence whereof were sudden outcries and strong bodily convulsions; 2) to strengthen and encourage them that believed, and to make His work more apparent, He favored several of them with divine dreams, others with trances and visions; 3) in some of these instances, after a time, nature mixed with grace; 4) Satan likewise mimicked this work of God in order to discredit the whole work; and yet it is not wise to give up this part any more than to give up the whole. At first, it was, doubtless, wholly from God. It is partly so at this day; and He will enable us to discern how far, in every case, the work is pure and where it mixes or degenerates.”

The truth is that this did not help Wesley’s reputation as an enthusiast and rabble rouser.  As Hempton writes, “Early Methodists were looked upon as disturbers of the world, the new Levellers, and were thus victims of surviving memories of the English Civil War when antecedent forms of popular religious enthusiasm led, or so it was thought, to the collapse of political, religious, and social stability” (87).  Thus it was no surprise that many early Methodist meetings were broken up by riots or press gangs.

4. For more on the Maxfield and Bell controversy see Kenneth Newport, “George Bell: Prophet and Enthusiast,” Methodist History 35.2 (1997), 95-105.  This was one of several cases where Charles Wesley’s instincts towards more tradition and stability in the Methodist movement should probably have been followed sooner.  He warned John about Maxfield and Bell early on but John was slow to act, preferring to believe their experience genuine.

Works Cited

Brown, Callum G. The Death of Christian Britain. London: Routledge, 2009.

Bunyan, John. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1888.

Edwards, Jonathan. Religious Affections. Ed. John E. Smith. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1959.

Heitzenrater, Richard P. Wesley and the People Called Methodists. Nashville: Abingdon, 1995. Kindle Edition.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1985.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. London: Tegg & Son, 1836.

Rogers, Hester Ann. An Account of the Experience of Hester Ann Rogers. New York: Carlton & Porter, 1857.

Somers, Margaret R. and Gloria D. Gibson. “Reclaiming the Epistemological ‘Other’: Narrative and the Social Construction of Identity.” Social Theory and the Politics of Identity. Ed. Craig Calhoun. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1994. 37-99.

Wesley, John. “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion.” The Works of John Wesley, Vol. 5. New York: Emory and Waugh, 1831.

Guilt and Subjectivity in Bunyan’s Grace Abounding

As I prepare for my qualifying exam this summer I will be blogging through some of the books I am reading as a means to clarifying my thinking.  These posts are not intended to be terribly original or fully developed, but merely gesture towards some interesting lines of analysis.

Having considered some of the prophetic overtones of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress in my last post, I now want to turn to his autobiographical Grace Abounding to the Chief of SinnersGrace Abounding was written while Bunyan was serving a lengthy jail term for preaching publically without a license and was published in 1666.  Like Pilgrim’s Progress the text deals with the struggles and temptations of the Christian life, but unlike the better known work Grace Abounding does so within the genre of the conversion narrative.

This in itself is interesting, especially vis a vis my continuing interest in the development of the conversion narrative over the course of the long eighteenth century (see my previous post on Methodist conversion narratives) and in fact Grace Abounding has been on my reading list for quite some time.  I’m going to deal with some of the interplay between Bunyan’s narrative and later evangelical narratives at length in my next post so what I want to do here is point out some of the more important and interesting facets of the narrative that help us better understand the particularities of Bunyan’s life, theology, and work.

John Bunyan in Prison

To begin with, the most noticeable aspect of Bunyan’s narrative is the overriding sense of guilt that dominates the first two thirds of the text.  This is somewhat typical of similar Calvinist conversion narratives (see, for instance, Jonathan Edwards’ Faithful Narrative) as distinct from Methodist conversion narrative.  On the surface this seems somewhat unusual as the Calvinists believed that, once saved, the elect could not lose their salvation while Methodists believed that a person could “backslide” away from Christ.  However for the Calvinist most of the guilt and terror comes before conversion as the seeker worries over whether he or she is one of the elect and is born down by the burden of perceived sin.  A tremendous amount of time is spent in these narratives detailing sins and the resultant guilt.  Take, for example, this passage from Grace Abounding:

Now I began to conceive peace in my Soul, and methought I saw as if the Tempter did lear and steal away from me, as being ashamed of what he had done. At the same time also I had my sin, and the blood of Christ thus represented to me, that my sin, when compared to the blood of Christ, was no more to it, than this, little clot, or stone before me is to this vast and wide field that here I see. This gave me good encouragement for the space of two or three hours; in which time also, methought I saw, by faith, the Son of God, as suffering for my sins; but because it tarried not I therefore sunk in my spirit under exceeding guilt again.

This is not to say that a similar sense of guilt is not present in narratives by Arminian Methodists.  Indeed, one of the key elements of their narratives is this consciousness of sin that first motivates the individual to seek for salvation.  However there is not of this vacillating back and forth over whether or not one is elect and, after salvation there is surprisingly little guilt or concern.

Despite the fact that guilt is a common characteristic of Calvinist conversion narratives, the sense of guilt that dominates Bunyan’s narrative borders on the neurotic.  Indeed, as William James famously observes in his Varieties of Religious Experience, Bunyan “was a typical case of the psychopathic temperament, sensitive of conscience to a diseased degree, beset by doubts, fears and insistent ideas, and a victim of verbal automatisms, both motor and sensory.  These were usually texts of Scripture which, sometimes damnatory and sometimes favorable, would come in a half-hallucinatory form as if they were voices, and fasten on his mind and buffet it between them like a shuttlecock.”

Most famously, Bunyan spent years obsessing over whether or not he had committed the “unforgivable” sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit.  Large portions of Grace Abounding are taken up with his mental vacillation and anguish over this question and he does in fact seem to obsess over certain words, phrases, and scripture passages.  In modern day psychological terms we might say that Bunyan was a clear manic depressive who went through extreme bouts of depression and melancholy characterized by obsessive thoughts; bouts that were promptly followed by incredible bursts of spiritual elation and a sensibility of God’s love.

It is this extreme obsessive, manic, and internalized nature of the text, however, that is perhaps as intriguing from a literary perspective as it is tiresome to the reader, for it signals a larger sea change in the way narratives are constructed.  Remember, Bunyan published Grace Abounding in 1666 at a time when poetry was still the dominant artistic form – and make no mistake Grace Abounding, even as an autobiography, is important from both an artistic and literary perspective.  For, by shifting the narration of the story primarily to internal spiritual struggle instead of external action, Bunyan subtly reshapes our notion of narrator and action in a way that suggests the complex internal subjectivity and perspective of the novel.

Furthermore, the narrative structure of the text is unique in that the first two thirds of the narrative are taken up with Bunyan’s internal struggle for spiritual freedom, while the final third is consumed with his imprisonment and struggle for physical freedom.  Indeed, the two sections parallel each other both in form and in the way Bunyan conflates physical and spiritual freedom.  Far from being an inconsequential addition to his personal struggle, the final third of the text indicates the extent to which Bunyan’s external life and actions were bound up with his inner experience.  All this is not to say that Grace Abounding is a novel only that the type of spiritual autobiography it participates in is an important (and often ignored) forerunner to the novelistic form.

Indeed, it is this complex internal religious subjectivity that informs outward action that is perhaps the most engaging thing about Bunyan’s narrative and it clearly powerfully informs how he interacts with a largely hostile public sphere that persecutes and imprisons him.  In my next post, I will consider at greater length how the religious subjectivity Bunyan helped spawn came into conversation with the Evangelical Conversion narrative genre at large and the burgeoning Enlightenment discourse on religion, perception, and subjectivity.

The Arminian Magazine and Lay-Women’s Conversion Narratives

Methodism under its founder John Wesley presented an unusually open space for women in the eighteenth century.  Though at the beginning of his ministry Wesley’s attitudes towards women reflected the cultural, social, and ecclesiastical prejudices of his day, this attitude shifted over time as he witnessed the powerful work of the women of Methodism.  In fact women came to play a vital leadership role in early Methodism, leading devotional groups, Sunday schools, and even preaching. Furthermore, the influence of women within Methodism was so great that until 1830, nearly 57% of its membership made up of women (Hempton 137).  Much good scholarly work has been done in the past twenty years on the extraordinary women of early Methodism and I will not retrace their arguments here1.  Nevertheless relatively little work has been done on the contributions of religious lay-women like the largely unknown and forgotten female contributors to John Wesley’s Arminian Magazine.  What I want to argue here is that by striving to listen to these women in their own terms and according to their own cultural and religious contexts we can begin to better understand how the women of early Methodism viewed the relationship between the inner experience of spiritual regeneration and speaking, writing, and acting in the public sphere.

The Arminian Magazine: History and Purpose

John Wesley founded the Arminian Magazine in 1778 in response to growing tensions within evangelical revival over the question of predestination. The evangelical revival in England was both diffuse and diverse with, by mid-century, this controversy spilled over into the pages of the religious periodical press.  The Calvinist evangelicals launched the first salvos in The Spiritual Magazine and The Gospel Magazine, lampooning Wesley, satirizing his writings, and portraying his followers as enthusiasts (Heitzenrater 267).  In reply, Wesley began publishing the Arminian Magazine: Consisting of Extracts and Original Treatises on Universal Redemption to counteract this Calvinist message.

Wesley’s introductory comments to the first issue reflect this tension by claiming that The Spiritual Magazine and The Gospel Magazine “are intended to show, that God is not loving to every man; that his mercy is not over all his works; and, consequently that Christ did not die for all, but for one in ten, for the elect only” (JWW 14:279).  He then lays out in contrast the general plan of his magazine, saying that it will include:

First, a defence of that grand Christian doctrine, ‘God willeth all men to be saved… Secondly, an extract from the Life of some holy man… Thirdly, accounts and letters containing the experience of pious persons, the greatest part of whom are still alive; and, Fourthly, verses explaining or confirming the capital doctrines we have in view (JWW 14:280).

Thus the purpose of the magazine, for Wesley, was to defend “universal redemption” against predestination not only through polemic and theological argument, but also through the personal experiences of actual Methodist men and women.  This real-life experience was proof positive for Wesley that the salvation experience was available to all.

It is in this context that Wesley solicited personal religious experience accounts for the Arminian Magazine. Because of his extensive correspondence and the fact that Wesley corresponded particularly widely with women, the influence of women on the pages of the Magazine prior to Wesley’s death is particularly striking.  Of the 238 biographical accounts in the Arminian Magazine, 79 are about women (Tolar Burton 200).  Interestingly enough, 113 of these accounts were published between the inception of the magazine in 1778 and Wesley’s death in 1791 (Jones 275), at which time men’s and women’s accounts were almost equally represented (Tolar Burton 200).  Furthermore, according to Jones, nearly forty percent of all biographical material published under Wesley’s editorship was by or about women, though only fourteen accounts can be directly attributed to women authors (Jones 276-277).  Finally, even after Wesley’s death, Tolar Burton estimates that almost a quarter of the published accounts were about women, though even fewer were authored by them (200).

Even more interesting is the fact that, despite the clear evidence of John Wesley’s editorial hand, the Arminian Magazine narratives written by women about themselves have a quality quite distinct from both the accounts about men and the accounts by men about women.  Instead of being stories of chaste and upright women, these women often spend relatively little time on their lives and family and instead focus on their intense experiences of inner spiritual transformation. It is this intense sensible spiritual experience that both sets these narratives apart from conversion accounts written by and/or about men and prompts these women to speak and act publicly.  In doing so, they move women’s religious experience out of the limited domestic sphere traditionally assigned to female piety, into the broader religious community.

Women’s Experience and Public Space in the Arminian Magazine

Broadly speaking, the religious experience accounts by women that appear on the pages of the Arminian Magazine fall into a relatively consistent seven part narrative pattern: 1. Consciousness of sin; 2. Acquaintance with Methodism and search for salvation; 3. Justification; 4. Opposition from within and without; 5. Search for “Christian Perfection”; 6. Achievement of perfection; and 7. Evidence of God’s grace in life and community.

In exhibiting this pattern, these narratives thus perform the mimetic function that John Wesley hoped to instill through his own Journal and published narratives.  Furthermore, they also indicate that these women saw themselves as part of a larger community of readers and writers, all of whom were pursuing the same spiritual goals.  As Hindmarsh has pointed out:

Through these communal practices they learned what was commonly expected in religious experience, and what was common became, in literary terms, conventional…. In expectation of conversion, evangelical discourse acted like a map, identifying the sort of terrain one might cross and the sort of destination one might arrive at if one chose to venture out, waiting upon God in the means of grace (157).

Of course, as Hindmarsh also makes clear, just because these narratives were conventional, does not mean that they lack originality or insight.  Instead, Methodist women appropriated readily available genres as a means to relating their own personal experience in a way that would be better understood by the broader Methodist community.  It was precisely by using these conventions that Methodist women were able to form a unique sense of identity grounded in the broader religious culture.  Thus, it is in this light that we must interpret the various manifestations of these generic conventions.

The first narrative convention that appears in all the Arminian Magazine narratives is consciousness of sin and the need for salvation.  As with many Methodist women whose writings have survived, all four of these women were relatively religious girls, who tried to observe all outward signs of piety.  Elizabeth Scaddan recalls that from an early age she was taught by an older pious woman to observe her duty to God and neighbor and that “the duties of religion demanded my chief concern.  Her endeavours so far succeeded, as to give my mind a religious turn; and before I was ten years old, I felt a concern whenever I thought I had offended God”.

Nevertheless, these women come to believe that this is not enough and that they are in reality slaves to the “sins” of dancing, card playing, novel reading, and vanity. This conviction of sin and the need for salvation intensify after their encounters with the Methodists and they begin to earnestly seek for their salvation. These portions of their narratives are particularly vivid as the women almost literally wrestle with God and the knowledge that they can do nothing for their own salvation except believe.  Mrs. Planche, for example, writes of her palpable desire for justification that she fears will never come:

My state of mind was now distressing.  I had many doubts and fears, the burden of sin lay heavy upon my conscience, and I groaned under it…. O how I longed to come to him; but found I was shut up in unbelief, and could not break my chain…. I found a divine attraction upon my heart, and had many visits of God’s love; but I wanted justifying faith, and a clear sense of my interest in Christ, and determined not to rest till I found it.

Like many women who wrote their conversion accounts, Mrs. Planche feels that she knows the way to salvation and even possesses the desire to be saved, but cannot achieve it herself.  As such, this portion of the narratives is often filled with stops and starts, with intense spiritual experiences that almost result in a sense of justification, but always fall short.

Though this struggle for justification could often last months or even years, in the relatively short Arminian Magazine narratives this time frame is compressed and the account of justification often directly succeeds spiritual struggle.  This is arguably the most important point in the narrative for these women, and their descriptions of the moment of justification are remarkably similar.  In every case, justification is preceded by some sort of religious activity – prayer, scripture reading, religious services – and the sense of justification comes to these women without the effort or striving that characterizes their earlier attempts. Mrs. Planche writes, “the Lord then spoke peace to my soul.  He took away all guilt and condemnation from my conscience, and shed abroad his love in my heart.  I knew my sins were forgiven, and that I was accepted in the Beloved”.  Thus, what distinguishes these moments from their previous religious experiences is that they mystically feel their sins have been forgiven – that they have been justified to God.  There is a sensible, experiential quality to these narratives that reflects John Wesley’s belief that the individual could experientially know that he or she was saved and that God loved them.

However, this sense of justification is often frequently questioned and opposed from within and without as the women begin to question their own spiritual state and friends and family members ridicule them for becoming Methodists. Elizabeth Scaddan was given an ultimatum from her own family who told her she “should no longer remain with them; that they would disown me [for associating with the Methodists]; and accordingly I had only till the next morning to determine what answer to give them”.  In the end her family backed down, but it was not atypical for family members to be distressed at their daughters or wives becoming Methodists.  This concern reflected not only contemporary prejudices against the doctrine of justification by faith, but also the prevalence of false rumors that were widely spread about the Methodists accusing them of Popery and even sponsoring orgies at their “love feasts,” or communal gatherings.

For Methodists, however, justification was only the first step on a journey to salvation that ended with Wesley’s doctrine of “Christian perfection,” otherwise known as sanctification.  The achievement of this most esoteric of Methodist doctrines was the ultimate goal of the Christian journey and Wesley believed it could be obtained instantaneously, before the moment of death.  Wesley defined Christian perfection or sanctification as the elimination of all intentional sin, which he believed to be attainable in this life.  However, by sin Wesley does not mean any unintentional wrongdoing but a “voluntary transgression of a known law” of God.

Of the women under consideration here, all but Elizabeth Scaddan relate their struggle for and ultimate achievement of Christian perfection. Much like justification, these three women experience Christian perfection only when they give themselves over to God.  Furthermore, they tend to represent this experience in almost erotic terms – using the figurative language of love and affection to describe the feeling. Mrs. Planche combines this erotic language with the language of liberation to describe her experience:

He came into my soul with such a display of his grace and love, as I never knew before.  All my bands were loosed, and my spirit was set perfectly free.  I felt an entire deliverance from all the remains of sin in my nature; and my precious Jesus took full possession of my heart.

Thus in each case these women represent sanctification as an overwhelming experience of God’s love that destroys sin and then works outward into the community.

If we follow Wesley’s positive construction of Christian perfection as pure love for God and neighbor, it naturally leads to the final step of the religious experience narrative: evidence of God’s grace in life and community.  For not only are these women’s accounts constructed according to specific community conventions, they also describe how these women see themselves as part of a unified religious community within which they have found a scope for speech and action.  As Mrs. Planche writes following her justification, “I did indeed love him with all the powers of my soul, and made a free-will offering of myself to him, to be his for ever.  O what a heaven did I enjoy in his favour and love; and how did I feel my soul united to his dear people!” (emphasis added).  This is an especially bold statement from Mrs. Planche as she lived a full forty miles from the nearest Methodist society.  Her experience prompted her to not only be active within her community, but also advocate with Wesley himself for the stationing of a lay preacher at Kelso, in Scotland. These communal bonds further empowered women to become involved in visiting the sick and poor, lead classes and bands, correspond with the most powerful people in the Methodist movement, and even record their religious experiences for the broader Methodist community.  Though many felt inadequate to do so, the outpouring of love they experienced through sanctification provided the undeniable impetus to enter public space.

The fact that all four of these women were ordinary laywomen and not female preachers, teachers, or well-known writers further emphasizes this point.  Despite the massive amount of scholarship on the Methodist movement as a whole, there is still relatively little research on lay piety in general and lay female piety in particular.  What has been done has primarily focused on the exceptional Methodist women, like the preachers, who felt called to radically challenge eighteenth century cultural norms by speaking to men.  The four women whose narratives are presented here, however, are quite different.  Their entry into public space on the pages of the Arminian Magazine came not so much because they felt called to challenge cultural assumptions in the way the women preachers did, but because Wesley asked them to write about their conversion and they felt compelled to by that experience.  These, then, were not the voices of the educated or pious elite, but regular Methodist laywomen who wrote in spite of these perceived inadequacies simply because they felt their experience demanded it.

Notes

1. See Paul Wesley Chilcote, John Wesley and the Women Preachers of Early Methodism. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1991. for the foundational study of women preachers in Methodism, D. Bruce Hindmarsh, “’A Nail Fixed in a Sure Place’: The Lives of the Early Methodist Preachers.” The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England. Oxford: Clarendon, 2005. 226-260. for an exploration of the lives of women preachers that appeared in the Arminian Magazine, and Vicki Tolar Burton, “The Mystic and the Methodists: An Account of the Experience of Hester Ann Rogers.” Spiritual Literacy in John Wesley’s Methodism: Reading, Writing, and Speaking to Believe. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2008. 197-231. for the most comprehensive study to date of the most famous Methodist woman writer.

References and Further Reading

Bruff, Rachel. “The Experience of Rachel Bruff, of Talbot-County, Maryland [Written by Herself].” Arminian Magazine March 1787: 135-137, April 1787: 191-192, May 1787: 243-246.

Heitzenrater, Richard P. Wesley and the People Called Methodists. Nashville: Abingdon, 1995.

Hempton, David. Methodism: Empire of the Spirit. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2005.

Hindmarsh, D. Bruce. The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005.

Jones, Margaret P. “From ‘The State of My Soul’ to ‘Exalted Piety’: Women’s Voices in the Arminian/Methodist Magazine, 1778-1821.” Gender and Christian Religion. Woodbridge: Suffolk, 1998. 273-286.

Mack, Phyllis. Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotion in Early Methodism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.

McInelly, Brett C. “’I had rather be obscure. But I dare not’: Women and Methodism in the Eighteenth Century.” Everyday Revolutions: Eighteenth Century Women Transforming Public and Private. Ed. Diane E. Boyd and Marta Kvande. Newark, DE: U of Delaware P, 2008. 135-158.

Planche, Mrs. “An Account of Mrs. Planche. [Written by herself sometime before her death.].” Arminian Magazine August  1791: 416-423.

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Taylor, M. “The Experience of M. Taylor. [Written by herself.].”Arminian Magazine December     1791: 613-619.

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